The Endangered Coral Reef of Democracy

How the election of 2020 was fortified; learning from Indivisible's disconnect; how one California city is defeating the pandemic; and much more.

The Conspiracy to Save the 2020 Election

Molly Ball has a big story in Time magazine about the behind-the-scenes work that shored up the democratic process last year, which she frames—somewhat cheekily and perhaps dangerously—as “a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information.” She adds, helpfully, “They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.”

Lots of key actors show up in her piece: Mike Podhorzer, a top AFL-CIO official, who wrote a March memo on “threats to the 2020 election” that foresaw the challenges presented by a president who was already making clear he wouldn’t accept any election result other than his own victory; Ian Bassin, a former Obama administration lawyer whose Protect Democracy group pulled together a bipartisan election-crisis task force gaming out plausible scenarios; the Fight Back Table of progressive organizations that created the Democracy Defense Coalition, staffed by Angela Peoples, a veteran movement organizer; Anat Shenker-Osorio, the messaging guru who helped frame the language the groups came to use as the crisis built in the days leading up to and after Election Day; the foundations that poured tens of millions into shoring up voting by mail and local election administration when Republicans in Congress blocked vital funding; a bipartisan group of high profile former elected officials led by Democrat Richard Gephardt and Republican Zach Wamp; racial justice organizers like Nelini Stamp of the Working Families Party who helped created and lead election protection in key cities and whose Joy to the Polls project helped defuse potential flashpoints at voting sites; and state organizers like Art Reyes III of We the People Michigan, who deftly deployed his folks to head off post-election efforts by Trump allies to disrupt the count there.

Ball adds lots of vital details to a picture that is still emerging, including how a joint statement on Election Day by the AFL-CIO and the US Chamber of Commerce, plus the National Association of Evangelicals and the National African American Clergy Network, calling for patience as the votes were counted, came into being (talk about strange bedfellows!); and how the democracy defenders rallied their various assets to head off the Michigan machinations of the GOP, using TV ads, garnering a joint statement from three former state governors from both parties, placing private calls to local business leaders and donors. As we now know, getting the result certified in Michigan was the true turning point in Election 2020; had the state’s election board voted differently, other states where Republican legislators had the potential to gum up the works soon certified their results as well (though that didn’t stop Trump from trying until January 6th to pressure states like Georgia to “find” him the votes he needed to steal the election).

All the contours of Ball’s report ring true, except one, which readers of this newsletter are already familiar with. While the democracy defense coalition made the right call on Election Night to hold off on planned protests the next day, the restraint shown by the hundreds of local activists who had spent months working in concert with the national Protect the Results network was not won without costs, which I’m not going to rehash again here at length. Ball starts her piece with an alluring and completely false anecdote, claiming that “a weird thing happened right after the Nov. 3 election: nothing….an eerie quiet descended. As President Trump refused to concede, the response was not mass action but crickets.” Well, here’s video of several thousand crickets marching down Fifth Ave in Manhattan Wednesday November 4th; here’s the Daily News story on same. There were plenty of protests around the country that day; they were peaceful.

I don’t like the idea of grassroots democracy being stuffed down the memory hole in order to sell a narrative that glides slyly past its own rough spots. The coalition to defend democracy made a decision without a process that was actually inclusive of the many people on the ground they virtually represent. Three-quarters of the local Protect the Results organizers wanted to march November 4th but they were overruled. Saving democracy with organizational Stalinism isn’t just ironic, it’s not healthy. But given the tattered state of civil society in America circa 2020, it was also arguably necessary. After all, it’s undebatable that it got to the hoped-for outcome of a Biden victory and avoided the specter of “Proud Boys vs antifa” street clashes, which it feared could have helped Trump steer the national narrative all the way to a declaration of martial law.

The big lesson of Ball’s piece, like the earlier story of this same network of organizers written by Alexander Burns for The New York Times, is not that democracy won. As Angela Peoples told Ball, “We won by the skin of our teeth, honestly and that’s an important point for folks to sit with. There’s an impulse for some to say voters decided and democracy won. But it’s a mistake to think that this election cycle was a show of strength for democracy. It shows how vulnerable democracy is.” In more ways than one.

Indivisible Under the Microscope

As I’ve been promising, I’ve posted the full transcript of the RootsCamp panel I did in December with Aram Fischer of Indivisible Middle Tier, Paula Martinos-Mantay of Statewide Indivisible of Michigan and Lara Putnam of the University of Pittsburgh. It’s really long, so the folks at The Forge, an online magazine focused on organizing, are running an abridged version. Completely coincidentally, both of these went up yesterday at the same time that The American Prospect published a 6,400 word report by Harvard academics Theda Skocpol and Caroline Tervo titled “Resistance Disconnect.”

I highly recommend taking the time to read Skocpol and Tervo carefully, and to leaven their analysis with some key observations from Fischer, Martinos-Mantay and Putnam. The key question that hovers throughout is whether the grassroots explosion that followed Trump’s election inevitably had to develop the way it did, or if different choices by donors, organizers and activists could shape things in better ways. It’s tempting to blame the so-called “iron law of oligarchy,” which posits that rule by an elite is inevitable within any democratic organization because of tactical necessities, for Indivisible National’s evolution into another top-heavy Washington-centric member of the nonprofit industrial complex. If you take that view, it will save you a lot of time and also probably suggests that you are an incrementalist comfortable with a lot of other aspects of the political status quo.

But if you are someone hoping to change the status quo, the truth is that organizations are led by people who make choices, and those choices are always contingent, human and fallible. I don’t think Indivisible had to evolve the way Skocpol and Tervo describe; someone had to push its founders to rapidly staff up a top-heavy operation; someone had to choose to obscure the fact that it was dependent on big donors to its grassroots; someone had to choose to keep claiming that it had double or triple the number of local “chapters” than existed. All the signs point to a mix of big donor and corporate advocacy culture coming down hard on young idealistic congressional staffers who didn’t know what they were doing and took their cues from the people around them in DC. And so the monoculture reproduced itself.

The existence of the Indivisible Middle Tier, a Slack community of nearly 700 local group leaders, which was built not by Indivisible’s founders but by Fischer personally reaching out one-by-one, and the fruit born from that effort, show that a different kind of movement structure is possible, where information flows laterally and collaboration follows organically. Putnam offers this compelling image: “Providing that kind of infrastructure for decentralized group formation turns out to be super impactful. It’s kind of like putting old tires in the sea in a place where there used to be coral reefs. Things stick to them, and all of a sudden you’ve got the possibility of creating an ecosystem that works as a coral reef again.” As we go forward, I hope the kind of journalism and commentary I do here will contribute to building more of those coral reefs.

Post-Trauma Politics

Something very important is quietly happening among the new generation of women office-holders; they’re talking to each other and building a very different response to the abusive and misogynist environment of contemporary American politics. First, they’re not keeping quiet about it. Here’s Rep. Rashida Tlaib powerfully speaking on the House floor yesterday about the death threats she and her family have gotten since the day she was elected. About a minute in, who comes to stand beside her to offer support, but Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who shared her experience of the January 6th storming of the Capitol this past Monday night on Instagram. Tuesday, AOC explained on Twitter that she had wrestled with telling her story and initially decided not to, but “Then I had dinner with Sen. @Biaggi4NY. I told her everything because I knew she was a survivor. She helped me see the importance of sharing my story of the Capitol and trauma.” New York state senator Alessandra Biaggi (who I should note is a friend and ally, as her district overlaps my local political homebase), shared her story about surviving child sex abuse on the Albany senate floor in early 2019, and has taken the lead with several other colleagues in trying to challenge the culture of harassment that is still prevalent there. The world of politics is still dominated by men as well as enabling institutions and habits of looking the other way, but beneath the surface, tectonic shifts are under way.

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Tech and the Pandemic:

-Reading about how the University of California, Davis has built a “protective bubble” against COVID-19 that encompasses not just its students and staff, but the entire city of Davis, population 69,500, made me think about the actual patchwork of failure and renewal that is America in 2021. The UC-Davis story—which includes a campus geneticist who got permission to repurpose a $400,000 machine used for identifying plant DNA into a fast, low-cost COVID-19 testing lab; extensive screening and contact tracing that has caught 850 asymptomatic people; critical injections of government and philanthropic cash; and visionary public officials—is an example of good news amidst a national sea of confusion, dysfunction, and most worrisome, a traumatized and exhausted health-care workforce. What’s happening in Davis reminded me of the argument made by Jim and Deborah Fallows in their 2018 book, Our Towns, about the “new America” being built by resilient people in many small cities around the country that don’t’ fit the “blue vs red” paradigm endlessly reinforced by the national media. (It also reminded me of the post-apocalyptic vision of Octavia Butler, who posits a revival of communitarianism after America’s great cities collapse due to climate change, inequality, greed and authoritarian rule. The UC-Davis story suggests we can still avoid that timeline.)

-Most government information technology projects fail, in large degree because of terrible government procurement processes that favor incumbent companies who know how to win those contracts rather than actually make good products. Add to the list a $44 million no-bid contract to Deloitte for the US Centers for Disease Control’s Vaccine Administration Management System. As Cat Ferguson reports for Technology Review, “it was supposed to be a one-stop shop where employers, state officials, clinics, and individuals could manage scheduling, inventory, and reporting for covid shots—and free for anyone to use.” Instead, “VAMS has become a cuss word,” the head of South Carolina’s health department says. Deloitte has a history of building failing government software, including for state unemployment systems; one wonders how it got this deal.

On the other hand, the failure of New York City’s government, which has no shortage of tech talent, to develop t truly accessible and equitable system for making vaccine appointments, is inexplicable. It gets a justifiably angry treatment from Noel Hidalgo of BetaNYC and Hana Schank of New America in The Daily News. The city’s sign-up pages are only in English and overly complex, choices that are compounded by the fact that info provided at vaccination sites is also only in English—despite the fact that nearly half of New Yorkers speak another native language. White New Yorkers have gotten vaccinated at rates far outstripping their proportion in the population, according to new data released by the city.

One for the History Books

“If you really want to be '’concerned’' about the levels of some of these profitless Internet stocks, such as Amazon.com, you should pay less attention to Mr. [Alan] Greenspan and more attention to what's going on in a small house in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There, a single Iowa family, headed by Lyle Bowlin, is re-creating Amazon.com in a spare bedroom. I tell you this not because they're an immediate threat to Amazon.com, but to underscore just how easy it is to compete against Amazon.com, and why therefore I'm dubious that Amazon and many other Internet retailers will ever generate the huge profits that their stock prices suggest.” –New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, February 26, 1999 column (h/t Mark Schmitt)

Odds and Ends

This hilarious piece by Moe Tkacik on the “Lousy Tippers of the Trump Administration,” based on her waiting tables on the likes of Stephen Miller is the chef’s kiss.

If the government is worried about hackers accessing President Biden’s Peloton exercise bike, cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier asks, what about all the other people who use them as well as other internet-connected consumer devices?

Eric Levitz puts the GameStop “populism” story in proper perspective: “If the ethos of social media leads the left to prize populist sentiment over progressive substance, then its energies will be ripe for misdirection by reactionary forces.”

End Times

Goats don’t vote about which direction to herd in, researchers have found, they just kind of copy what their nearest neighbor does. Neither do one-third of Americans. Could they just be watching their neighbors?